A review of Manufacturing Consensus: Understanding Propaganda in the Era of Automation and Anonymity by Samuel Woolley.
Review by Justin Kempf
The recent release of ChatGPT has raised many questions about the limits of automation and its ability to replace what many have long considered creative work. I’ve heard people question whether we will eventually replace journalists with machines. Others have wondered whether it makes sense to teach students to write essays any more. As so many people raised difficult questions about the limits of artificial intelligence, I took the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Manufacturing Consensus. It is the forthcoming book from Samuel Woolley. For those unfamiliar with Woolley’s work, he is among the most insightful researchers on digital propaganda.
Woolley demystifies the tools of digital propaganda from bots to sock puppets. He explains how people create them and why they have become so prevalent. He even shows how journalists and activists have harnessed the power of bots to communicate better information more effectively. Some have used the technology to become more efficient and effective in their reporting. However, bots offer newfound advantages for propagandists through their ability to amplify and suppress ideas. They exist to give the impression of a popular belief that likely does not exist. Propagandists use them as a tool to manufacture consensus.
For many of us the notion of artificial intelligence and machine learning conjures dystopian narratives. However, Woolley does not view bots or artificial intelligence as something magical or other worldly. Designers impart their own biases and assumptions into their digital creations. So, artificial intelligence will never become a better version of humanity. Rather it is a more powerful version of who we are already. Still, the rise of artificial intelligence does change our relationship to the digital world.
A Brave New World
Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation from Woolley’s work involves the aims of the digital propagandists. Obviously, bots rarely offer interesting or insightful ideas. Typically, they share very basic views, but repeat them over and over again so they begin to trend on social media apps like Twitter. Nonetheless, once it trends on social media platforms, many respected journalists start to look into the matter. Moreover, sometimes reporters will repeat those talking points in their reporting thereby legitimizing the ideas of digital propagandists. In other words, digital propaganda rarely strives to convince others so much as to legitimize controversial or blatantly false narratives.
Interestingly, Woolley views the use of bots in digital propaganda as democratizing even while it is antidemocratic. No longer are state actors the only source of political propaganda. Bots allow individuals without any state affiliation to amplify their own ideas to shape political narratives. Indeed, many people propagating fake news are not Russian operatives, but simply people with radical political biases. Still, the way those views get amplified so some voices count more than others is intrinsically antidemocratic.
Nonetheless, Woolley confirms what many have written over the past five to ten years. Digital tools from social media to artificial intelligence provide opportunities for authoritarians to shape civil society. Moreover, disruptive technologies expose society to new sources of vulnerability otherwise unimagined. It’s alluring to focus on the benefits from change, but it also comes with costs. Woolley pulls back the curtain, so we can better recognize those costs for what they truly are.
About the Author
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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